Some say that we use only 10 percent of our brain capacity. After my fifty-plus years of working with persons with savant syndrome, both congenital and acquired, I think that may be an overestimate.
That quote by Donald A. Treffert, MD is from the forward of the book, The Superhuman Mind: Free the Genius in Your Brain.
Talk of extraordinary mental abilities might bring to mind great scientific names like Sir Isaac Newton, Marie Curie, or Albert Einstein, or perhaps artistic eccentrics like Vincent Van Gogh, Andy Warhol, or music prodigies such as Yo-Yo Ma. People with this kind of brain power are usually considered rare freaks of nature who just happened to win the genetic lottery.
While us mere mortals are often intrigued and envious of these brainy anomalies,
You Don’t Have to Be Born a Genius
In the book, The Superhuman Mind: Free the Genius in Your Brain, the authors, Berit Brogaard Ph.D. and Kristian Marlow MA, write:
The prevailing assumptions are that people are born with extraordinary mental abilities, not made; that they operate on a plane inaccessible to the rest of us; and that they’re among the blessed few with a free pass excusing them from the drudgery of practice and labor intensive learning.
Nothing Could be further from the truth…
Not one of the people we encountered in the lab whose stories we’ll share in this book is born a “super-person.” Their pathways to brilliance are as varied as their personalities. But whether it was an injury, an innate brain disorder, an occassion of learned synesthesia, or a mentally “downloaded” algorithm that allowed them to bypass slow, conscious thinking, these gifted individuals gained cognitive access to areas of their brains that normally operate behind closed doors. They acquired the ability to manipulate information in new ingenious ways or at lightening speed — and they have much to teach us about how we can unlock our own hidden talents and abilities.
Your brain is constantly processing astronomical amounts of information every second, most of it outside of your awareness. If relentless practice, a brain disorder, head injury, or some other unusual circumstance allows an individual to access a degree of superhuman processing power, doesn’t it hint at the innate aptitude below the surface for all of us? Savants, virtuoso card counters, memory champions, people with perfect pitch, lightning fast mathematical calculators, extraordinary creative talents aren’t just the chosen lucky few. They provide insight into how anyone can begin to gain access to the genius within.
Neuroplasticity Allows the Brain to Restructure
Ordinary mortals can restructure their brains to access hidden potential by utilizing neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is your brain’s ability to rewire itself based on experience, emotions, and thoughts. In your brain, cells that fire together wire together, and cells that fire out of sync lose their link. The authors write:
Synchronicity here is key. When connected neurons fire simultaneously, producing brain waves in the same frequency range, they are able to work as a unified whole for a period of time. This mechanism, which is also known as synchronous oscillation, has been proposed to account for basic aspects of perception such as sensory binding (that is, the process by which the information of color, movement, and form become integrated into unified perceptions, and into more general processes like consciousness and attention).
You’ve probably heard that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something. Putting in hours and hours of practice makes corresponding neural connections stronger and faster in your brain resulting in advanced skills, but there are other methods you can use to speed up the process.
Your Brain Already Uses Algorithms
Your brain is already completing amazingly complex calculations faster than a computer, but it’s all happening below your conscious awareness. Take, for example, something as simple as reaching out and catching a baseball with your hand. Your brain has to note the speed and position of the ball and predict its trajectory faster than real-time. If your brain processed the actual incoming information from your eyes in real-time, the ball would be on the ground. So, to bypass the delay in processing time your brain performs an algorithm.
An algorithm is a shortcut your brain uses to solve a cognitive problem faster than it could using ordinary, conscious thinking. Below your conscious awareness, your brain already uses algorithms all the time whenever it can. With repeated practice, your brain can learn and internalize other algorithms which cause it to form new associations that eventually become automatic.
Your brain learns algorithms for performing many mathematical computations. These become wired into the parietal cortex so that you don’t have to consciously go through the steps of calculating the answer each time. Your brain just knows it. Multiplication is an example of a learned algorithm.
Your Subconscious Brain Is Faster Than Your Conscious Brain
Interestingly when it comes to calculations, the conscious brain is slower and makes more mistakes than the unconscious brain. It could be that we only really need consciousness for planning, and it evolved to ensure our long-term survival.
Your brain can learn to resemble the brains of autistic savants. Training for 10,000 hours is one way to achieve this, but by purposefully internalizing algorithms, you can accelerate the process. The authors write:
We just have to supplement the brain’s normal way of functioning so that it “makes room” for the extra algorithms, changing its neural structure in the process. How do we do that? …Training in conjunction with the right algorithms can sometimes unlock the brain’s dormant abilities. This is the case for many people participating in memory sports.
Your Brain Can Learn Synesthesia
Synesthesia, a special way of perceiving the world where the brain connects seemingly unrelated experiences or senses, can be another key to unlocking the brain’s extraordinary hidden potential. For example, a synesthete might perceive a teal blue/green associated with the number three, a headache might produce a vivid scarlet cloud, the word “kiss” might bring about the smell of cotton candy, or a piano playing may be experienced as tapping on the cheek.
The book tells of Daniel Tammet, a synesthete and mathematical savant, who developed his talents as a result of epileptic seizures as a child and holds the European record for reciting pi to the 22,514th decimal from memory. Daniel sees numbers as having colors, shapes, and textures. He doesn’t compute equations or memorize numbers, but merely translates what he sees into digits.
People are born with synesthesia and come upon the talent naturally, but all brains have the capacity to develop synesthetic abilities. The authors hypothesize that synesthesia may be the brain’s way of opening up areas that we don’t normally have conscious access to and tapping into the unconscious information stream. According to the authors:
Anyone can learn to associate qualities such as colors, personalities, or locations with information they need to access quickly. For instance, you might ‘color code’ phone numbers, lists of data on which you’re being tested, and verb declensions and key phrases in languages you’re learning.
The book gives many fascinating real-life examples of humans with extraordinary abilities and tactical suggestions as to how you can begin to access to your inner genius.